A Gentleman Undone
When I started reading A Gentleman Undone, I could tell almost immediately – within a page, really – that the writing was simply a cut above. It’s just that good. It’s not necessarily my favorite premise (war-scarred, ex-military hero meets and falls in love with life-scarred, ex-prostitute/current mistress of another man), but when a book is as well crafted as this one, it just doesn’t matter.
Will Blackshear owes George Talbot a debt he can never repay. He considers himself responsible for Talbot’s death, and has plans to invest in a shipping venture so he can support Talbot’s widow and child. But Will is a younger son with few prospects. In order to raise the money for the investment, Will plans to gamble, carefully and conservatively. He sets out on this mission, landing at a higher class establishment. He notices Lydia almost immediately: ”Three of the courtesans were beautiful. His eye lingered, naturally, on the fourth.” There’s something about her harsh, not quite beautiful features that draws his eye. He goes on to win 180 pounds, defend Lydia when her protector crassly discusses her talents, accidentally view Lydia and her protector in a very compromising position, and lose his 180 pounds to Lydia afterward.
Lydia was gently born, but a combination of unfortunate choices and bad luck reduced her to prostitution. Her current station is only slightly elevated; she’s supported by her protector but has no long-term contract. She has an uncommon aptitude for math and card-play, and when her lover falls asleep, she casually plays his cards for him. She is adept at both cheating and winning honestly. Annoyed that Will has seen her with her protector, she deliberately manipulates the deck so he loses his money.
But Will’s not some rich gentleman playing for amusement; he needs that money. At first opportunity, he corners Lydia and demands that she return the money. She helps him win it back and agrees to teach him how she plays cards. The scene where she explains odds to him is absolutely fascinating. Since I somehow sailed through college without taking statistics, I had to read it three times and then explain it to my kids before I really got it (if you’re more familiar with stats than I am, you’ll recognize the “Let’s Make a Deal” scenario).
They come up with a bold plan that will suit both their needs: Will needs money to invest so he can support Talbot’s widow, and Lydia wants to invest in a annuity and secure her own independence. If they attend lower class, high stakes gaming hells where no one knows them, they can use strategy and odds, teaming up to help each other win. Will makes it clear to Lydia that though he desires her, he won’t sleep with her, or use her in the fashion that other men have. He’s not “that guy.” They will keep their sojourns secret from her protector, visiting clubs on the nights he is otherwise occupied. Of course, Will falls in love with her, and she with him. But everything is complicated about their relationship. Lydia is beholden to another man. Will has obligations he can’t ignore. he’s not in the position to support a wife. It all ends satisfactorily, of course, though it’s a bumpy ride along the way (which is precisely what makes reading this book worthwhile.)
Nearly everything about A Gentleman Undone is enjoyable, but for me the writing itself is the star of the show. Grant is a writer’s writer, with beautiful, descriptive prose that puts her in the class of some the most accomplished romance authors. I’d liken her to Sherry Thomas, Tracy Grant, and Elisabeth Fairchild. High praise indeed.
The plotting is also superb. I love a juicy conflict, one you can relish – rather than the more common “easily solved” variety. There’s no easy way out of their entanglements, and no, they can’t simply win all the money they need and throw their other obligations to the wind. Grant also breaks what for many if a major romance taboo; Lydia continues to sleep with her lover for most of the book. What’s more, though she becomes increasingly irritated with him, initially she likes him and – gasp! – enjoys sleeping with him.
The love scenes are hot, and in keeping with everything else, well-written. They move the plot forward, and never resort to cliche.
Like the conflict and plot, the characters are engaging. They both have baggage; if you’re looking for light, you won’t find it here. Naturally, it manifests in all parts of their lives. I found Will the more sympathetic, and probably the more honorable. Lydia is fascinating, but more remote (which is the reason this book is a B+ for me rather than an A-…It was a tough call).
A Gentleman Undone is a sequel to A Lady Awakened, a book I haven’t read but would like to. Will’s sister is the heroine of the former book, and though I could tell her story had been told, I had no trouble understanding the current one. Whether you’ve read the first book or not, I heartily encourage you to pick this one up. A Gentleman Undone is a beautifully written, deeply satisfying read.